Service members from Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J., joined a crowd of families, friends, community members and volunteers as they welcomed more than 150 World War II and Korean War veterans upon their return from visiting the nation's capital, June 21, 2014, at St. Kevin's Church, Springfield, Pa.
The veterans participated in the Honor Flight Philadelphia program which escorted them, at no cost to the veteran, to Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia, and then to Washington, D.C., to personally view the memorials which are dedicated to their service and sacrifice.
After leaving the capital, they made their way via bus to the reception party.
Upon crossing the Delaware and Pennsylvania border, they stopped at the 'Welcome to Pennsylvania' rest area where they were met by more than 300 motorcyclists who accompanied them northbound. The route took them underneath overpasses where fire engines parked, and their ladders displayed giant American flags in honor of the veterans.
Firemen and police officers were lined up on the bridges to salute them as they passed.
The buses delivered them to St. Kevin's Church where they were greeted by a welcome reception fit for kings, complete with a red carpet, Knights of Columbus members, a live band and a sea of American flags.
"This trip, far and above exceeded everything I imagined," said former Navy Seaman Harold Rosen, 88, a Bluebell, Pa., native who served in the Pacific. "Not just the visiting of the monuments and the caring of the [Honor Flight] guardians, but seeing the love and affirmation for the American veteran."
One by one, some walking and others in wheel chairs, the veterans were escorted by Honor Flight guardians down a red carpet. The crowd of more than 700, including 13 Airmen and Marines from JB MDL, lined up along the red carpet to shake the veterans' hands.
"I was honored to greet the men and women who came before me and paved the way for myself and generations to come," said Air Force Staff Sgt. Jonathan Lynch, 32nd Air Refueling Squadron flight engineer and Vancouver, Wash., native. "The veterans were very lively and have inspired me to live life to the fullest as they have."
The guests of honor wore matching white Honor Flight t-shirts; some complete with medals pinned on, and many wore their respective World War II and Korean War ball caps.
"I was overwhelmed, overjoyed and very humbled," said Josephine Larson, 86, former Navy hospitalman and Lansdale, Pa., native. "I was especially taken by the children who came to shake my hand and say 'thank you for serving our country.' It was the best day of my life."
While making their way down the carpet and into the church, they offered and returned salutes, some of them insisting on standing from their wheel chairs, to the service men and women in uniform.
"When they walked down the red carpet and recognized we were saluting them, it was extremely humbling when they returned our salute, knowing how much of an impact their military service had on world history," said Marine Sgt. William McDermott, security clerk assigned to Marine Aircraft Group 49 from JB MDL. McDermott hails from Ridley, Pa.
Helen Collins, resident of Acts Retirement Life Communities and former Marine sergeant who served in both World War II and the Korean War, stopped in front of the Marines lined up on the red carpet; "Here are my boys," she said.
The service members were invited to participate in a USO dinner inside the church where they had the opportunity to sit down and visit with the guests of honor. Prior to eating, a group of children sang the Star Spangled Banner and the veteran's voices stood out as they sang along and held their salute.
I knew the event was going to be great, but there's something about being here in person, and everyone was saying 'thank you', it was just fantastic, said Collins.
During the dinner, the Manhattan Dolls provided entertainment as they danced on stage and sang the tunes of the 1940s and 1950s. Some of the gentlemen joined the Dolls on the dance floor and showcased their best moves.
The Honor Flight Philadelphia's primary mission focuses on enabling World War II veterans to visit their memorial in Washington, D.C., free of charge, while they still have the chance to. The massive event was a joint effort made possible by donations and volunteers. The next Honor Flight mission is scheduled for September.
"Everyone who helps Honor Flight is a volunteer," said Rich Walzak, Honor Flight team member and volunteer. "The vast majority of the volunteers come from families of veterans or are veterans themselves. I have never been around a group of people who have such a united focus; to honor the men and women who served our country and show them the respect they deserve, and that their efforts will never be forgotten. The Honor Flight group will do whatever it takes to ensure our veterans truly understand they are American heroes."